In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?
Melia Tourangeau, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, looks to lead the ensemble forward after a discordant strike.
photos by Janelle Bendycki
Melia Peters stepped onto the stage of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in a tea-length black dress. As she sat down on the piano bench, she played the first notes of her senior recital at the prestigious music school. She had every reason to feel confident, having nailed the program during the dress rehearsal.
What she hadn’t predicted, however, was a wardrobe malfunction. As she played her program of Bach, Chopin and Beethoven, the chiffon sleeves of the Laura Ashley dress she wore — a loaner from a friend — slipped off her shoulders, disrupting her rhythm.
She froze. Gripped by the stage fright that had dogged her for years, she lost her concentration. The performance in 1994 was bad — and she knew it.
She kept her composure until she walked backstage. But the minute she saw her parents, she burst into sobs. She felt terrible guilt about the tens of thousands of dollars they had spent on her classical music education. She felt as though she had let them down; her parents were sympathetic.
“You don’t have to do this for a living,” her father consoled her. “Please understand that.” She knew she didn’t want to become a concert pianist, but what else could she do after all of that education?
As it turned out, that cringe-worthy recital was the start of a career in classical music for the future Melia Peters Tourangeau — but not as a concert pianist. After graduating from the Ohio music school she started down a new path — in the competitive world of symphony orchestra management. She worked her way up to the presidency of the Grand Rapids Orchestra in 2005 before becoming CEO of the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. Then in May 2015, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra appointed Tourangeau, then 44, as its new CEO and president.
While she no longer has to battle stage fright, Tourangeau has had to deal with some major problems as an administrator — most recently, a bitter and bruising labor battle with 96 PSO musicians and two librarians. For the first time in 41 years, the symphony’s musicians walked out during a 55-day strike that forced the cancellation of most of the orchestra’s fall concerts.
Battle lines were drawn. Fans of the musicians joined the picket lines, wrote letters to newspapers and planted lawn signs showing their support. An unfamiliar face to many Pittsburghers, Tourangeau was pitted against the striking musicians, though she had the backing of the symphony board of trustees and civic leaders, as well as leaders of city foundations, which provide funding to the orchestra.
She ultimately negotiated a five-year contract with local members of the American Federation of Musicians that cut their salaries in the first year by 10.5 percent — much less than the initial 25 percent and subsequent 15 percent cuts initially proposed by management. And then, after Tourangeau secured a generous donation from an anonymous benefactor, the pay cut was further reduced to 7.5 percent for the first year.
The musicians also agreed to switch from a defined pension plan paid for by the PSO to a 401(k) plan in the fourth year of the contract. As part of the cost-cutting, Tourangeau agreed to cut her own salary. When she arrived at the PSO, she was paid $400,000 — a salary she says was “the median salary for the top 25 orchestras in the country.”
During the strike talks, she offered to take a 15 percent pay cut in solidarity with the musicians. “After the settlement, the board felt that my reduction should match the musicians’ 10.5 percent reduction,” making it $358,000. “That puts my salary second to the lowest of the top 25 orchestras,” she wrote in an email. “Even with this reduction, we are realizing an administration expense savings of over 15 perfect with our other staff changes.”
Tourangeau’s handling of the strike earned praise from the chairman of the PSO board. “She showed good leadership in a very stressful situation,” says Devin McGranahan. “Emotions ran high. We have her to thank that it only lasted  days and not a lot longer.”
But Meredith Snow, chairperson of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, sees it differently. Snow, whose organization advocates for members of the American Federation of Musicians, says she is concerned about the long-term impact of salary cuts on the stature of the PSO and its ability to attract top musicians from around the world.
The 7.5 percent pay cut knocked the PSO out of the country’s top 10 orchestras in terms of salary, an elite group made up of what musicians consider to be “destination orchestras.” Before their pay cut, according to Snow’s organization, Pittsburgh’s symphony musicians had a minimum salary of $107,238, which put it 10th among U.S. orchestras, between Cleveland and Cincinnati. But a post-strike minimum salary of $99,196 drops them to 12th place, behind Cincinnati and Dallas.
Being knocked out of the top 10 symphonies “was a blow,” says Snow.
“What’s most frustrating is that it takes decades for orchestras to build themselves up to that stature. Then within the short span of a month or two, the management says, ‘We are going to cut.’ Why would you undercut the very product you’re trying to market? Management views it as replacing one cog for another. It ignores the artistry and subtlety. It takes years to create one voice out of 100 instruments.”
Tourangeau counters that high musician salaries alone do not make or maintain a top-tier orchestra. “It involves recruiting and retaining the best talent. It’s touring internationally and being invited to the best venues in Europe,” she says. “We’re winning Grammy nominations — that’s how you qualify as a top-tier orchestra.”
On any given day, Tourangeau, a red-headed former Tennessean with a friendly manner, is liable to have lunch dates with donors and back-to-back dinner dates. In her first few months on the job, the PSO’s board chairman McGranahan thought there must have been a mistake in her expense report when she listed multiple dinners for one day. The controller assured him it was no error. “There are nights when she has three dinners,” McGranahan says. “That speaks to the vibrancy of the woman.”
Her outgoing public persona would surprise anyone who remembers the shy kid who spent much of her childhood in Knoxville, where her parents ran a printing business.
“She was very bright — but very, very shy,” says her mother, Karen Peters. “I mean, this kid would hardly speak to anybody until high school. She didn’t start coming out of her shell until she was 15.”
Tourangeau took up the piano at age 7 and eventually found confidence through musical talent. In high school, she accompanied the choir for a Christmas concert of a Mozart composition. She had taken the complex piece to her stern piano teacher, but the teacher refused to help her with it because it was not assigned during a lesson, her mother says.
She practiced the piece on her own, and on the night of the performance, she played it perfectly. There was silence when she finished. The choir conductor turned and put his hand on Tourangeau’s shoulder. To her surprise, he asked her to stand and take a bow. The crowd of high school students gave her a standing ovation, her mother recalls. “High school kids who didn’t know anything about classical music went wild. It was an incredible moment.”
Riding home from that Christmas concert with her parents, Tourangeau announced, “I’m going to make music my career.” With her talent, however, came a debilitating weakness: She was plagued by stage fright. Her mother attributes it to a critical piano teacher who never praised her and made her self-conscious on stage. The problem persisted through her college career at Oberlin, culminating in her senior recital.
After Tourangeau graduated with a major in piano performance and a minor in musicology, she explored other options, such as music therapy and ensemble playing. Then she talked with Allison Vulgamore, an Oberlin alumna who had just been named the CEO of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. At the time, Vulgamore, who now heads the Philadelphia Orchestra, was the youngest woman to run a major U.S. orchestra.
“She’s the one who told me it was a career path you can take,” Tourangeau says. “She said you have to be passionate about the art form, so it’s a huge time commitment. She really inspired me.”
After serving as the education coordinator at the Akron Symphony, in 1997 she joined the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan as education director and kept getting promotions until she was named president. In her first year with Grand Rapids, she met and began dating Mike Tourangeau, who worked for a market research firm.
When he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given a life expectancy of one to seven years, he told her to break up with him. He didn’t want her to waste time in a relationship with no future. But she stayed by his side, and after three years of treatment, brain surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, they were given the best news — he’d beaten the medical odds. They celebrated, then married, four years after his diagnosis.
Meanwhile, she kept being promoted through leadership positions with the symphony, which funded her master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis on nonprofit leadership at Grand Valley State University. That advanced degree opened the doors for a big change in Tourangeau’s classical music career — and a big move for the couple.
In 2008, she became the CEO of the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, seven years after the two entities had merged. “It was very much a forced marriage,” she says. “I felt like I was the Secretary-General of the United Nations because I had all these different constituencies.” She also had to raise funds at a time when the economy was in the tank because of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Tourangeau is credited with unifying the culture of the two once-separate constituencies and with fundraising in a very tough climate.
“She is optimistic, intelligent and buoyant,” says Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the League of American Orchestras. “Her record in Utah was remarkable. She got the financial pieces back together. She successfully led the merger of the orchestra and opera.”
Based on the strength of her record in Utah, she was asked to come to Pittsburgh to interview for the top PSO job. She wasn’t looking to leave Utah, where she, her husband — a stay-at-home dad because of post-treatment memory issues — and their two young children, Olivia and Zach, were happily settled. But Pittsburgh was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“These positions with the Big 10 orchestras don’t turn over very often,” she says.
When she came to the PSO for her job interview she listened to the symphony orchestra, which she had not heard for 10 years.
“I was blown away. I think the Pittsburgh Symphony is not only one of the best orchestras in the country — I would say it’s certainly one of the best in the world,” she says, ranking it with orchestras in Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.
Micah Howard, a bassist and principal negotiator for the musicians bargaining committee, was on the selection committee that chose Tourangeau.
“We believed that she would be a great face for the institution,” he says. “She was a great fundraiser. She was good at bringing constituents together.”
At first, Howard says he was impressed with her. She hired a marketing consultant to reach new audience members and to use digital technology. She also increased core ticket sales — BNY Mellon Grand Classics and PNC Pops concerts — by 6 percent over the previous year, the highest increase in five years. At a time when symphonies nationwide increasingly are getting more revenue from fundraising than ticket sales, she courted donors.
Then came the contract talks. Tourangeau says she had not been aware of the PSO’s financial situation until after she arrived. When she and the board made a strategic five year-plan, they projected a $20 million deficit. The union challenged that number, saying it was exaggerated. During contract negotiations, an independent expert evaluated the finances.
With the board’s direction, Tourangeau opened negotiations with the musicians by seeking a 25 percent pay cut before issuing a last, best offer of 15 percent. In an organization that always has prided itself on collegial relations between musicians and management, Howard says he was stunned.
“I was blindsided by the hard line they were taking. It was always important that we compete with the top 10 orchestras. They rejected that,” he says.
Some outside observers say they believe that Tourangeau’s public statements — containing references to the many talented musicians coming out of music school — created hard feelings among the musicians.
“That projects an attitude that we don’t care if you stay or leave,” says Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant who writes the highly regarded orchestra business blog Adaptistration. “That is nothing but hostile. There was no good way to spin it.”
Tourangeau says she did her best to reach a solution under trying circumstances and to avert a financial crisis.
“I was a new leader in a new position. I was not anticipating a work stoppage. I negotiated eight or nine contacts [at other jobs]. This was the hand I was dealt. I wish there had been a better way. I am grateful it didn’t last any longer.”
One by one, the musicians walked onto the stage of Heinz Hall on Dec. 2, some waving to the eager, music-deprived audience. The strike over, the members of the orchestra had swapped their black-and-gold solidarity T-shirts for black formal wear and their picket signs for piccolos, violins and trumpets.
“The music has returned,” Musical Director Manfred Honeck declared to the audience before a rapturous performance. Members of the audience members erupted into multiple standing ovations. It sounded as though the orchestra that had spent two months on the sidewalks had not missed a beat when it returned to the gilded elegance of the concert hall.
Honeck had remained neutral during the strike. “Now he can be part of the healing process,” Tourangeau said late last year. But there has been some fallout from the strike. As arts consultant McManus says, “Labor disputes are a lot like divorces — except you live together and sleep in same bed.”
One of the world-class musicians the PSO lost during the strike was Ed Stephan, the principal timpanist. He had taken an audition at the San Francisco Symphony before the strike started and accepted the position in the middle of it.
In an email, he wrote, “My own departure is a very emotional one, as Pittsburgh is my hometown and remains home to my family, friends, teachers, my teaching career and my wife’s very successful career in public education. It is also home to one of the world’s greatest orchestras, which was at one time indisputably one of the best JOBS for an orchestra musician in the U.S. Sadly, this is less the case now than it was even 10 years [ago]. I hear the chatter among musicians in the field, and the perception is definitely shifting. I hope that the board and management can reverse that.”
During the past decade, Stephan contends, the PSO’s stature has gradually diminished because of declining wages, contract instability and changes in artistic challenges such as the shift to more Pops concerts and fewer classical ones.
Meng Wang, a violist, also left the PSO. Howard, the bassist and chief negotiator for the musicians bargaining committee, said other musicians also prepared for auditions with other symphonies during the strike. But he says he is hopeful the PSO will work hard to hold onto its world-class musicians, who by year five of the contract will have received salary increases that will bring them up to their pre-strike levels.
“It is going to be a challenge to maintain the excellence of the organization, but I think it can be done,” he says. “I hope our sacrifices send a message to the city. We hope people who love the orchestra will come forward and help out the way the musicians helped with the contract.”
Both sides now are moving forward as they salvage the rest of the PSO’s season. But the conflict between the PSO’s management and its musicians was so bitter it could take months, if not years, to heal. Tourangeau, who became choked up while addressing the orchestra during its first post-strike practice, says she hopes to repair the rifts by having musicians become more involved on board committees and keeping lines of communication open.
Her admirers say Tourangeau’s leadership has put the PSO on a more stable financial footing and assured its future.
“She deserves a lot of credit,” says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “It was a tough situation, especially for someone from the outside. She showed great leadership and skill in getting the people to work together to come up with a sustainable solution while still preserving the core of a world-class orchestra. She deserves credit, as do the rank and file members of the symphony, the great artists they are.”
No one knows yet how the strike will affect the soul of Pittsburgh’s great symphony orchestra.
On the financial front, she has a lot of hard work to do. Even with the musicians and management making sacrifices, she has set a goal of increasing the annual fund from $8 to $12 million.
So the CEO can look forward to being out in the community even more, eating back-to-back meals with donors and friends of the PSO.
“It’s a call to action to the community,” she says. “The future of the Pittsburgh Symphony is what we are talking about here. Nobody cares about the arguments. They just want concerts.”
Frequent contributor Cristina Rouvalis profiled rapper Kellee Maize and her search for her birth father, former teen idol Jimmy McNichol, for Pittsburgh Magazine in July. Her work also has appeared in Hemispheres, PARADE, Esquire.com and other national publications.